Rad­i­cal pub­lish­ing house en­rages Marx­ists over copy­right of col­lected works of Marx and En­gels

A small pub­lisher of Col­lected Works has run afoul of Marx­ists by as­sert­ing copy­right

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

There is ou­trage, fury and in­dig­na­tion— but no revo­lu­tion, of course—in the rar­efied world of Marx­ist in­tel­lec­tu­als. A whole lot of them are in a lather over the tak­ing down of Marx and Engel’s col­lected works from a pop­u­lar Marx­ist web­site be­cause of copy­right is­sues. En­raged com­ments, mails and an on­line pe­ti­tion have shaken the se­date ecosys­tem of Marx­ist thinkers af­ter a lit­tle known rad­i­cal pub­lisher, Lawrence and Wishart ( L&W), rat­tled the foun­da­tions of their eco­nomic thought.

The rum­pus is over a foun­da­tional set of book on Com­mu­nist pol­i­tics, Karl Marx, Fred­er­ick En­gels: Col­lected Works. About nine years ago, the Lon­don-based pub­lish­ers of these pon­der­ous vol­umes, 50 in all, had al­lowed Marx­ist In­ter­net Ar­chive ( MIA), one of the best known repos­i­to­ries of Marx­ist lit­er­a­ture, to re­pub­lish Col­lected Works in part. MIA, also known as marx­ists.org, of­fered 10 of the 50 vol­umes that had been digi­tised free on­line. But to­wards the end of April, L& W asked MIA to take these off the web­site by May 1 be­cause it was plan­ning to of­fer a dig­i­tal ver­sion of the en­tire Col­lected Works to univer­sity li­braries world­wide. All hell broke loose over what was termed the tri­umph of cap­i­tal­ism over Marx­ism in the heated rhetoric that poured into cy­berspace from sup­port­ers of MIA and other lib­er­als. They were par­tic­u­larly in­censed that the pub­lish­ers had sought to en­force their copy­right claim on the holi­est of holies—May Day!

L& W, at one time the pub­lish­ing house of the Com­mu­nist Party of Great Bri­tain, clearly, did not ex­pect the roast­ing that it has been get­ting. It has sought to de­fend it­self in two ways. First, it claims, the mon­u­men­tal work has been put to­gether with enor­mous labour and schol­ar­ship and trans­lated into English— work that took three decades and more. Sec­ond, it rub­bishes the claim that it is a cap­i­tal­ist mo­nop­oly as por­trayed by it crit­ics. De­scrib­ing it­self as “in­de­pen­dent rad­i­cal pub­lish­ing,” that sur­vives on a shoe­string, L&W says it makes no profit ex­cept that re­quired to pay “a small wage to its over­stretched staff” and ploughs back most of its re­turns into rad­i­cal pub­lish­ing projects that in­cludes an ex­pen­sive pro­gramme of free e-books.

It de­clares that “with­out L&W, the full col­lected works of Marx and En­gels in English would not ex­ist” and more per­ti­nently, “with­out the in­come de­rived from its copy­right in these works, L&W would not ex­ist.” But is the pub­lish­ing house com­plain­ing too much? A search for the an­tecedents of Col­lected Works re­veals that L&W can­not claim all the credit for the tomes. In­volved in their prepa­ra­tion were In­ter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, Progress Pub­lish­ing Group Corp., Moscow, and the Rus­sian In­de­pen­dent In­sti­tute of So­cial and Na­tional Prob­lems. Be­sides, as David Wal­ters, writ­ing on be­half of MIA, points out, the first 10 vol­umes were pub­lished be­tween 1975 and 1978 and, there­fore, L& W would un­doubt­edly have re­cov­ered their costs by now.

Main­stream US me­dia has been hav­ing a field day in what they see as an amus­ing fight be­tween rad­i­cals that is “so un­com­radely”. But they have sidestepped fun­da­men­tal is­sues that the con­tro­versy raises. If only a small part of Col­lected Works was hosted on­line by MIA, should L&W have sought its take- down? The ar­gu­ment of the Left bri­gade is that the 10 vol­umes would not have posed any com­pe­ti­tion to the Bri­tish pub­lisher. But li­braries may have baulked at buy­ing a dig­i­tal ver­sion, part of which was freely avail­able. L&W con­tends that by sell­ing the Col­lected Works to pub­lic li­braries, it will en­sure a pub­lic pres­ence of the works in the pub­lic sphere. “This is a model of commons that re­im­burses pub­lish­ers, au­thors and trans­la­tors for the work that has gone into cre­at­ing a book or se­ries of books.” That may be true but it can also be ar­gued that li­braries are not en­tirely pub­lic do­main be­cause these re­strict ac­cess to those with aca­demic sta­tus at a univer­sity that is sub­scrib­ing to the ser­vice. Ditto for read­er­ship of learned jour­nals.

The larger ques­tion is if the Marx­ists are, in­deed, de­mand­ing the re­wards of a free mar­ket con­sumer cul­ture while pro­fess­ing to fol­low com­mu­nist ideals. As L&W com­plains, the de­mand of its crit­ics re­flects “a con­sumer cul­ture which ex­pects cul­tural con­tent to be de­liv­ered free to con­sumers, leav­ing cul­tural work­ers such as pub­lish­ers, ed­i­tors and writ­ers un­paid, while the large pub­lish­ing and other me­dia con­glom­er­ates and ag­gre­ga­tors con­tinue to en­rich them­selves through ad­ver­tis­ing and data- min­ing rev­enues and through their far greater in­sti­tu­tional weight com­pared to small in­de­pen­dent pub­lish­ers”.

Tail­piece: Tech­nol­ogy may have de­feated L& W al­most in­stantly. Sev­eral mir­ror sites of MIA have ap­peared and these are of­fer­ing pdf files of the en­tire Col­lected Works on­line. Sur­prised by what they call the on­line re­sponse, the pub­lish­ers are sound­ing more con­cil­ia­tory. They are now “con­sid­er­ing what we can do to meet the de­sire for greater ac­cess”.


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